Morality needs God

Ron Smith vs Matthew Flannagan | “Morality Does Not Need God” | Waikato University

Hello readers, today we have uploaded the the debate with Dr Ron Smith and Dr Matthew Flannagan to YouTube, though some of you may have noticed it floating around Facebook. It was a well-attended debate, in total 200 people came along and participated.

This sort of event is what we like to see at Thinking Matters, people from both sides of the “God” debate coming together and engaging in a civil and intelligent conversation. You will be able to tell that Matthew and Ron disagreed with each other, yet they disagreed with “reverence and respect”, showing that disagreements over religion do not necessarily divide. In addition, the questions that were asked of the interlocutors, were penetrating but at the same time, cordial. No one got offended and everyone was calm.

In his opening remarks Dr Frank Scrimgeour, the moderator commented:

“It is an important occasion, and an important topic that befits a university, particularly a contemporary university that seeks to place more moral claims on its students, more than was the case when I was an undergraduate student … I trust that it will be a fun evening and I look forward to crowd response, but I request that it will be done with dignity and good nature. I am sure that enhances the quality of the conversation … I am not interested in moderating a debate where people cannot hear the participants. So I guess the more you disagree with someone, I challenge you to listen harder and be ready to ask the insightful question at the appropriate time … Think hard and enjoy yourselves.”

Ron echoed this sentiment saying:

“I was an easy target for the invitation to speak in this because I have become increasingly concerned, to be frank, about the extent to which the university has attached itself, and areas within it, to particular ideological views, and really shutdown discussion in a variety of areas … where discussion is inhibited. Now if there is anywhere in the community where discussion ought to proceed without persons needing to be protected against the possibility that arguments don’t sit well, it’s a university. The university has failed to live up to its obligation, so this is the test of the principle.”

Both of these men understand how important debates on the existence and nature of God are, and have identified that a university ought be a perfect place for such a discussion to go ahead. One of the key reasons why the debate was a true victory, was because it showed that people can disagree about the most important things in life and still part on good terms. Matthew defended the Christian conception of God and Morality in the true spirit of 1 Peter 3:15-16, where St Peter commands:

but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

May this also be something we never forget.

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The Age of the Expert

Where would we be without the Internet? This Network of networks, the Internet has empowered mankind with infinite information, an avenue for democracy and a foundation for building relationships across geographical barriers. It has started revolutions and graciously given you the name of the song stuck in your head all day.

A cursory glance through the history of technological development will notice that the Internet wasn’t the only leap forward that had titanic impacts on how we live. The wheel and automobile helped us get from A to B in much shorter time, while the alphabet and book were game changers in how common man viewed language and the accessibility of knowledge. In a similar way, the Internet’s advance has empowered people to learn more and more, because it is so easy to find information. Don’t know the names of Jupiter’s moons? Google it. Nobody got time for the library.

Who’s the boss?

Just like the hammer in the shed, we believe that the Internet is just another tool we harness for our benefit. We assume that we are masters of self and are immune to any sort of external trickery, especially by machines. But as the foremost philosopher of communication theory, Marshall McLuhan, suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They do supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. In words for today –  the Internet is changing our brains. It is naive to think otherwise.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, describes our consumption of knowledge before and after the internet:

“Whether I am online or not, my mind now expects to take in information they way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving steam of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Furthermore:

“Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”

Have you ever been in a Facebook comment thread debate? Then this will feel painfully familiar. Shallow thinking spawns shallow engagement with others. The common courtesies you learnt as a child or in debating class to understand, listen to, and respect other viewpoints are thrown out the window. People feel free to hurl abuse and ridicule not just at each other’s arguments but at each other. The social network becomes antisocial. Alanis Morissette, eat your heart out.

How does this effect us?

Wading in the shallows of knowledge the Internet offers is not something that affects a particular demographic: it affects anyone who uses it for an extended period of time. That means all of us. For some strange reason, we assign ourselves expert status after watching a few YouTube videos. You would think that with the proliferation of information on virtually very topic, the most outspoken among us would do their due diligence to understand the view they espouse or oppose. This is not the case. Straw men abound.

Take, for example, how we talk about religion and God on the internet. All too often the norm is to belittle and dismiss our opponent’s arguments without seeking to engage or understand them. We settle for memes or parodies that build the faithful but antagonise everyone else. Perhaps we believe that by repeating, reposting and retweeting caricatures over and over again they might spontaneously come into existence.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Internet and the capability it puts at our fingertips. However, any medium that encourages short and pithy truth statements is not conducive to deep understanding.

While the Internet has contributed greatly to knowledge, democracy, and communication, there is a darker side to this technology. It has made us think we know what we are talking about with minimal effort. My encouragement to everyone is this – study hard and know what you believe and why you believe it. Not only your views, but those you oppose. This is true intellectual satisfaction and honesty. For in the deep things of life, the shallows just aren’t good enough.